[Second in a six-part lenten series on “Mystical Images”]
“In his anguish he prayed even more earnestly, and his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.”
Luke gives us this picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. What’s happening inside of Jesus here?
When we look at the accounts of Jesus’ passion and death we see that what the gospel writers highlight is not Jesus’ physical suffering but his emotional anguish. Indeed, in the gospels, his physical sufferings are almost underplayed. In Mark’s account, for instance, the entire aspect of physical suffering is written off in one line: “They led him away and crucified him.” What’s emphasized instead is that Jesus was alone, abandoned, betrayed, morally lonely, hung out to dry, unanimity-minus- one.
Moreover, the fact that Gethsemane is a garden (rather than in a temple, a boat, or a mountain-top) tells us something too. Archetypally a garden is a place of love, a place of delight, a place to drink wine with friends, a place of intimacy. Conversely, that also makes it the place where love is lost, where one feels the deepest kind of loneliness, and where one suffers emotional crucifixion.
Thus, it’s Jesus, the lover, who sweats blood in the garden. What he suffers there is the emotional agony that sometimes comes on us as the price of love. What Jesus sweats there is a lover’s anguish. What is that?
Several years ago, there was a TV series entitled, Thirty Something. One of the episodes ran this way:
A group of men had gathered for a “men-only” party at a hotel. One of the men at party, a married man, found himself attracted to one of the hotel managers, a young woman who was on duty that night, in charge of the hospitality. He had to deal with her all evening in terms of making arrangements for food, drink, and music. She was attracted to him too and as the evening went on their bond grew and, though nothing but practical conversation was exchanged, the romantic chemistry between them began to intensify. Each sensed it without, of course, revealing it to the other.
As the evening drew to a close, both did what comes naturally, they lingered near each other and found every kind of practical excuse to prolong their contact, without really knowing what to say to each other, but sensing that there was a special connection that they were reluctant to break off.
Finally, it was time to part. The man stalled, thanking her one last time for what she’d done for the group. She, not wanting to lose the moment, took the risk and said to him: “I very much enjoyed meeting you. Would you like to get together again sometime?”
He, guiltily fingering his wedding ring and apologizing for not being more forthright, did what too few of us would have the honesty and courage to do. He sweated a little blood and then said to her: “I’m sorry, but I’m married. I need to go home to my wife.”
My dad used to say to me: “Unless you can sweat blood sometimes, you will never keep a commitment, in marriage, in priesthood, or in anything else. That’s what it takes to be faithful!”
In essence, at least in miniature, that was Jesus’ agony in the garden. The blood he was sweating was the blood of emotional crucifixion, the prince of being faithful in love.
To be faithful, to love beyond daydreams, requires that sometimes – in hotel rooms, in gardens, at parties, in our workplaces, in places where wine is drunk, and in every place where people gather and intimacies are exchanged – we have to enter a great loneliness, the loneliness of moral integrity, the loneliness of fidelity, the loneliness of duty, the loneliness of renouncing an overpowering desire, the loneliness of losing life so that we might find it in a higher way.
And that isn’t easy. Jesus didn’t find it easy and neither do we. What love and fidelity ask will sometimes drive us to our knees in anguish and, like Jesus in Gethsemane, we will find ourselves begging God for a means to still have our own way in this, to have our cake and eat it too, to find some way around fidelity, vow, promise, and duty.
This is a lover’s anguish because the part in us that’s agonizing and resisting is that part of the heart that stewards intimacy, romance, and embrace. The lover in us is having to let go of some very precious things; it’s having to die to something for the sake of something else, and that’s emotionally crucifying.
The account of Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane is, among other things, a powerful mystical image that tells us it’s not enough simply to be sincere and follow the heart’s desires. Sometimes love and fidelity demand that, like Jesus, in anguish and tears, we say to God: “Much as I desperately want this, I can’t have it! Not my will, but yours, be done!”